My own grandfather, coming from Austria to Antwerp to await his steerage passage on the Red Star Line would have most likely stayed in the bustling city for a day or more before his departure.  I often wondered what his experience would have been like?  With a mere $20.00 in his pocket, where would he have found lodgings for himself, his wife and his infant child? This week I received this letter from a reader who was similarly fascinated by his own family history and intrigued by the question of lodging:

Dear Ms. Kelly

In your Red Star Line Museum blog entry of July 11, 2011, A Voyage to a New Life: Our Mystery Girl’s Own Experience, you mention cheap hotels near the docks in Antwerp.  My great-grandmother and five of her children (11 and under) embarked on the Red Star Line’s Westernland on March 22, 1890 in steerage class.  More than seven decades later, one of those children recalled that the night before their departure they had stayed at a “barracks-like” hotel.  They may have well been put up for the night by the Red Star Line.  I doubt that I will be able to identify the hotel, but I wonder if you know of any resources that would have information on the cheap hotels in the vicinity of the docks?  Any leads will be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your attention.

Joel Weber

From documents sent to me by the Red Star Line Museum research staff, I have found out that most of the lodging used by steerage passengers (such as our mystery girl, perhaps) was owned by the shipping companies like the Red Star Line but operated mostly by foreigners.  By the 1920’s as immigration began to be more closely regulated by North American ports, there remained only a few.  There would have been two categories of hotels: reception hotels which catered to immigrants who had just arrived in the city and “quarantine hotels” that received passengers who had already had their medical check and “disinfection.”

In 1907, around the time of our mystery girl’s departure (and the year of my own grandfather’s departure from Antwerp), there were 40 such hotels in the city.

Although they were disinfected weekly and supervised by a physician once a month, critics who examined the conditions talked about lice, overcrowding and other unsafe and unsanitary conditions.Because these establishments were purpose-driven and have closed after the Red Star Line ceased to populate them with passengers, it may be challenging to find the exact establishment where your ancestors (or our mystery girl) stayed.

But a visit to the new museum with its original buildings that are of the same time and construction as these hotels, will give Red Star Ancestors like Joel a vivid idea of the conditions that were dealt with in order to cross the ocean and start a new life.  There will also be artifacts, pictures, letters and personal remembrances that will give us a unique vantage point on the challenges, discomforts and adventures our families braved.

Thank you for your message, Joel.  We hope to see you in Antwerp soon!

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Talking Family Trees with Contest Winner, Jill Barone

Jill Barone is a Tampa-based banking professional whose own family tree provided the branches for her reality-based imaginary outcome for our mystery girl. Barone’s paternal grandparents came from Sicily and Calabria in Italy in the 1910s and then in the late 1920’s ,“when the window of opportunity was closing on certain immigrants,” Barone says.

“I heard the story of my grandmother’s trip across the ocean from Naples on the Columbo to Ellis Island when I was a child.  I would ask her to tell it to me over and over.  Even then, I was fascinated by the story.”

Like her imaginary character, Anna Stankiewicz, Barone’s grandmother crossed the ocean without her father, who had come to the States to work towards their citizenship papers five years earlier.

“It was a long time to be without a father,” Barone says.  “He had to establish residency and that was about a five year span.  I imagined my character Anna had to deal with a similar situation.”

Also like Anna, Barone’s family moved to Cleveland in the heart of the United States,  Her grandfather’s sisters worked as seamstresses like Anna to help the family.

”They worked hard.  They dealt with adversity.  Things got better for them,” Barone says.

“That’s why the image of the mystery girl is so intriguing and the Red Star Line Museum’s search for her so important.  She could be anyone’s grandmother or great grandmother.  A lot of immigrants had a similar story.”

Barone’s fascination with her own Italian family background is currently leading her on a trip back to the family source.  Prior to an upcoming journey to Italy, she sat down and wrote letters of introduction to people located in her family vicinity with the same name.  Like the Amanda Seyfried character in the film “Letters to Juliet,” her anonymous letter bore fruit and Barone found a long lost cousin whom she is planning to spend time with exploring ancestral connections.

When she travels again to Europe to visit Antwerp, Barone is particularly eager to walk the halls and experience the physical spaces of the Red Star Line Museum.

“I can’t wait to wander through those places that had been filled with hundreds of people waiting to start a new life.  I’m also really looking forward to seeing the personal possessions that they took with them, the archival documents and most of all, the photographs. Those faces…you can see so much in those faces.”

(Photographs below courtesy of Jill Barone: Barone’s paternal grandparents, Jill Barone, Barone’s grandparent’s tickets and arrival documents)

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